All Flesh
(Ben Brooker)

Verity La Lies to Live By

‘We should give it a name,’ Angela said. Her mother blinked at her. ‘You said “it”.’

‘What?’

‘If it’s an “it”, how come it needs a name?’

Angela, not knowing what to say, clenched her jaw, and fell into a deep reverie as she stared at the dumpy robot hauling itself up and down the living room floor.

 

It already had a name of sorts: The Meat. They were all called that—the hairless, four-legged automatons that generated their own flesh over the course of weeks for families to strip and enjoy. Though the cost of lab-grown meat had come down considerably since the industry’s early days, the problem had always been that animals move and in vitro meat is inert. Meat looks and feels the way it does because of the continuous movement of blood and muscle; because the ineluctable life-force of animals, measured out in so much running and hunting and mating, leaves dead organic flesh rubicund and firm. Lab meat, by contrast, is gray, fatless, thin and soft like balsa wood.

The Meat had solved all this. Its flesh was delicious, textural, and pumped full of myoglobin for the correct, familiar colour. Artificial circulatory systems distributed oxygen and nutrients for the right mouthfeel. Internal regulators, maintaining a constant temperature of around three degrees Celsius, assured optimum freshness.

No middle-class household was complete without one or more Meats, trundling round and round in fecund, algorithmic circles. Not everyone liked the name, but nearly everyone had come to be OK with the idea. Even vegans. Even the rabbis and ulamā who probed their holy books to sort out in vitro meat’s uncertain theological status. In the end, it seemed, only Morrissey and a handful of Hollywood stars were holding out, but then Morrissey died, and most of the stars changed their minds.

 

Angela lifted her legs for The Meat as it lumbered over the rug. She was watching TV on a wall-sized screen, and could smell onions. The Meat thrummed as it approached the kitchen doorway, paused, then about-faced and began to retrace its steps. Angela left her feet suspended in the air, her thigh muscles tingling with the effort. She grimaced. The Meat passed obliviously, Angela’s feet thudding to the floor as her mum called from the kitchen.

‘Where’s The Meat?’

‘In here,’ Angela yelled back.

‘Turn it off, please.’

‘What are you making?’ Angela hadn’t taken her eyes off the screen. Her cartoon had finished and the autoplay function she’d forgotten to switch off had, for some reason, brought up a newscast. Limbless, emaciated children flashed up on the screen and then were gone. A monkish-looking man appeared, lamenting their fate.

‘Chops.’

Angela whinnied. Chops again.

‘It’s not The Meat anymore,’ she said.

‘What?’ Her mother could barely hear over the sizzle of frying onions and the whirring of the extractor fan.

‘It’s called Nevada. Boys or girls can be called Nevada and I don’t know if The Meat is a boy or a girl so I’m calling it Nevada.’

‘Bring The Meat in here, please.’

 

Some things had gone wrong at first, of course. One or two Meats caught fire and caused their owners’ houses to burn down. Another’s CPU crashed and a child was killed as it collapsed on top of him. Revelations of sweatshop labour and tax-avoidance practices at the companies that made them followed. Consumers soon forgot all this, though, as the technology rapidly improved and everybody, as they always do, found ways of living with their discomfort—mainly by thinking about something else.

Meats, though, were rarely out of the news for long. One escaped its owner’s house and was adopted by a homeless couple that was able to live off its flesh for two weeks until its battery ran down; and an unusual custom-made model became famous when one year, controversially, it replaced the live turkey that by tradition the President spares on Thanksgiving Day.

The outraged purists, who refused at first to eat anything other than what they called, with religious intensity, ‘real meat’, mostly came round once people weren’t paying quite so much attention. The government generously compensated the butchers and farmers who had made a living out of the trade in biological animals, their occupations mourned only in a vague, nostalgic way. Finally, in a series of advertisements that ran for so long everybody forgot how ridiculous they had seemed at first, celebrity chefs went on picnics with Meats, and escorted them to the opera, and speed-dated them, and maybe took them to bed, though nobody could be sure, as that was enthrallingly ambiguous.

 

After dinner, as she lie on her bed picking bits of meat out of her braces, Angela switched Nevada back on. They (as Angela had started to refer to The Meat, unconsciously using the gender-neutral pronoun) began to pad slowly around the room. Flensed of every inch of flesh, and blasted clean by a high-pressure hose in the carport, their naked exoskeleton shone, hard and glassy like obsidian. To Angela, they seemed sad, hangdog.

The Meat’s original design team had been careful to omit the kinds of features that make people fall in love with their pets—its face contained no more individualising details than an emoticon—and yet looking at Nevada made Angela feel uneasy. She knew that their flesh would grow back in a matter of weeks, that Meats weren’t supposed to have any feelings. But somehow it made no difference.

Feeling foolish, Angela called Nevada’s name. As she knew would happen, they didn’t respond, just kept ambling around the room with the same forlorn air.

Something began sniffing at the partially open bedroom door—Banana, the ageing family dog, who had probably heard enough of its name in Angela’s call for the robot to believe it had been summoned to her bedroom. The Jack Russell Terrier prodded the door open with its greying muzzle and stood for a moment in the doorway, regarding Nevada with suspicion.

Banana had attacked them on two or three occasions in the beginning, once making off with a sizeable chunk of juicy, three-week-old rump, but outright hostility had mostly given way to sulky forbearance.

He gave a low growl as Nevada began a new circuit of the room. ‘Banana!’ Angela snapped. ‘Stop it!’

The dog sat, sighing, his eyes shifting slowly between The Meat and Angela. Nevada plodded on as though nothing had happened, its armature faintly reddening with the first surges of myoglobin since the skinning.

All flesh is grass, Angela suddenly thought, though she had no idea where the words had come from, or what they meant.

She patted the spot next to her on the bed. ‘Come on, Nevada. Come on.’

But it was only the dog that seemed to hear, leaping onto the bed beside Angela with a force that made the mattress springs squeak noisily. Banana licked Angela’s face, his tongue unbearably moist with saliva, his breath pungent with the stench of wet dog food, kitchen scraps, and the garlic Angela’s mum swore by as a defence against fleas.

‘Get off,’ Angela shrieked, shoving Banana hard in the chest. His little legs collected on the carpet with a thud, his white and tan tail connecting, as it flailed out uncontrollably, with The Meat’s smooth, inscrutable face. Nevada stopped, its microcontroller sensing danger. Banana, only momentarily discomposed by being flung off the bed, turned sharply and gazed up at Angela with expectant eyes. Angela held up her hand like a police officer directing traffic.

‘No,’ she said, and Banana sat dejectedly.

Side by side with Nevada, the animal and the machine looked like some kind of weird family, estranged siblings sitting uncomfortably for a portrait. Angela smiled at the thought.

‘Good dog,’ she said. ‘Good Nevada.’

The Meat’s microcontroller suddenly cranked up again, some frequency obscure to Angela sending Banana vaulting from the room, the faint trace of an anxious fart lingering in the dog’s wake. Nevada, impassive as ever, resumed its lumbering progress towards the door. They would, Angela thought, have to be placed into their charging cradle soon, before their battery ran down to nothing.

She had been too late once before, and that brief, strange death had haunted her for days—haunted her still if she looked into herself deeply enough.

 

There was that jacket, back in 2008, which had had to be killed. Called Victimless Leather, it had begun as an art project—made from biodegradable polymer, mouse cells, and human bone—intended to confront people who liked to wear dead animals for aesthetic reasons. It became too successful, though, expanding more rapidly than anyone had thought, and had to have its life support system turned off by the curator of the gallery in New York where it was showing. The story briefly captured the public’s imagination because it sounded like science fiction but the idea never really caught on, partly because perfectly good leather substitutes had been around for a while, but mainly because it was exactly the kind of smug high-concept modern art that people liked to hate.

The burger was a different matter. Grown from cow stem cells at a cost of $330,000, it was met with cautious approval from the famous chefs who somberly tested the patty in front of 200 journalists. Despite the encouraging reception, it was generally agreed that $330,000 was too much for most people to pay for a burger coloured with beetroot juice.

Then, as if out of nowhere, there was a second test that had cost much less than the first, and soon non-animal meat was ubiquitous, a sudden, intractable presence in the lives of millions.

It had long been touted that inexpensive meat grown in this way could help reduce poverty in developing countries, but anywhere you looked there were still people starving, still whole communities filing into food banks. Anywhere, that is, except places like Minnesota and Leeds and Sydney, where Meats began to festoon hallways like delectable windup soldiers, and were taken on leashes to barbeque parties, which for a while made everybody laugh in between sips of wine.

 

‘It’s from the Old Testament,’ is all Angela’s mother would say as she prepared dinner. ‘It’s a terrible book. I don’t want you to read it.’ But Angela, bored with the cartoon that she had put on, was in the mood to persist.

‘It just means that flesh grows back like grass, right? Like Nevada?’

‘I don’t know what it means,’ her mother sighed, tossing slivers of fat into a bowl for Banana to eat later. ‘I’m not a theologian.’

‘Or does it mean that we’re all going to die?’

‘That’s enough, Angela!’

A moment of silence passed, Angela monitoring her mother’s face closely.

Perhaps a change of tack, she thought, would help. ‘What’s for dinner?’

‘It’s a kind of stew. It’s Moroccan.’

‘I don’t feel like meat tonight.’

‘Well that’s too bad.’

Angela screwed up her face so that it resembled a piece of dried fruit. She thought about crying, pushing her bottom lip out while she wondered if it would be worth it. Having decided it would not, she withdrew her lip, an unfired missile sinking back into its launcher.

Angela glanced over to where Nevada sat in their cradle, a small blue light on their flank intermittently flashing to indicate that charging was in progress. One day, Angela thought, when their flesh has grown back, they will want to keep it for their own reasons, and there will be nothing mum can do about it except chase them with the electric carving knife, and that would be silly, and also a kind of robbery, and also a kind of murder.

Angela had never heard of Victimless Leather but as she stared at the blue light long enough to make her eyes water she wondered how the world she knew would be changed if she switched Nevada off for good, removed their batteries and threw them away, wrecked the charging cradle, whatever it took—to spite her mother, yes, but more than that—to take a life in her hands like a tiny god, to put an end to them before they got out of control, outgrew the cradle and the living room and finally the house itself, their flesh pressing out the doors and windows like an uncontainable forest, like one of those sheep with record-breaking fleeces in imminent danger of suffocating under its own weight.

Maybe, Angela thought now, noticing the pitiful droop of their head like a wilted flower, it would be a merciful thing, nothing like murder at all.

The blue light stopped flashing and there was a beep like a microwave meal announcing its readiness. Nevada was fully charged.

Angela, turning the screen off, went to look for Banana. She hadn’t seen him for hours, and suddenly felt bad for having yelled at him, and for pushing his slight, old body off the bed as hard as she had.

On the newscasts that night, none of which Angela or her mother saw, was a story about a Meat in Tshwane that had attacked the old woman who owned it without warning, breaking both her legs and a wrist, and making a terrible mess of her face.

It was said that this Meat had been in perfect working order, and that the old woman, deciding—on balance—that it looked a little more like a male than a female, had called it Brian after her late husband.

Just as soon as the last of the reporters and police officers had left the hospital, one of the old woman’s grandsons went to her house and smashed The Meat to pieces with a hammer.

Then he went home and telephoned a lawyer he had known for years.

 

To a lot of people, The Meats had initially come as a relief. There was something comforting about them, about the way their usefulness seemed uncompromised by the rapid advances in artificial intelligence that had made other robots seem creepy rather than beneficial. Unlike the host of machines that had become expert at beating humans at chess and on game shows, or the lifelike sex robots that had outraged all sorts of moral sensibilities, The Meats had struck few people as representing a challenge to the primacy of human beings. They were too unreasoning for that, too wedded to the embodied cognition that gave them, above all else, great skills for simply being in the world. Children and sentimental adults sometimes forged attachments to them, it was true, but few people thought they crossed any kind of line. If anything, they had come to be seen as totems of morality, their mere existence saving millions of sentient animals from being slaughtered every year.

Nobody had heeded the handful of researchers who said that getting machines to win at chess was easy—the hard part was getting them to move the pieces.

 

‘Where is it?’

Angela was silent. She clenched her jaw. ‘You know we’re taking it back today?’

Angela nodded, then shook her head, then nodded again, and finally, overcome with some unspecified shame, stared motionlessly at the grass under her feet.

She’d been playing a game of her own invention in which she took the role of a hotel owner sheltering humanity’s last few survivors from an alien plague. All thoughts of Nevada had, temporarily, slipped from her mind. For hygiene reasons they weren’t allowed to go into the backyard, and it had been too sunny a morning to play inside. Now, it seemed, The Meats were not allowed anywhere.

‘What’s going to happen to them?’ asked Angela.

‘It’s just a safety recall. I don’t know. I guess they’ll all be fixed.’

‘They want to keep their flesh for themselves, don’t they?’

‘Where did you hear that?’

‘Nowhere.’

Angela pushed her toes into the dirt, unwittingly evicting a string of ants from their pinhole nest. She watched as they disappeared, one by one, into the grass.

‘Help me find Nevada, Angela. Please.’

Her mother took Angela by the hand and began to lead her back towards the house, the lawn hot like toast beneath their uncovered feet.

‘I think this is all a part of their plan,’ Angela muttered. ‘They’re going to starve us, then take over the world.’

Her mother, who had stopped listening, handed Angela her sneakers. She pulled them on, not even having bothered to brush the dirt from between her toes first. The shoes felt like armour, like the sabatons mounted knights donned before riding into battle.

Something glinted in the pocket of her mother’s overalls, sunlight on metal, but Angela didn’t ask what it was. By now she’d heard all about the case that had started it all, the old woman and the grandson and the hammer, and could guess for herself. Her mother saw Angela looking.

‘Just in case,’ she said, as she pushed the door to the house open, her other hand—darkly mottled as though it had caught the sun—slipping into her pocket.

Angela imagined, for a moment, her mother’s face as bruised and twisted as the old woman’s, her unconscious body sprawled on the kitchen floor as The Meat trailed bloody paw-prints through the house. Angela’s whole imagination seemed to change colour, like a vast red wave gushing into a rock pool. Finally, only the colour itself remained, the picture washed clean of detail.

‘It’s OK,’ said Angela as the daydream faded, ‘you don’t need to call it Nevada anymore. And I know exactly where it is.’

 


Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, critic, essayist, bookseller, and playwright. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, RealTime, The Lifted Brow, and Daily Review. Ben is a co-facilitator of Adelaide’s Quart Short literary reading salons and in 2016-17 was an inaugural Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellow. Find more from Ben on his website